By Karolina Kozlova, PT DPT
As a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, we didn’t have the snowy winters that visit New England, but it was definitely cold and snow was always a special occasion. Every time it snowed, my parents had a family tradition of taking off their socks and shoes, rolling up their pants and taking a bare foot run/walk in the cold snow. We would then come into the house, bundle up and get warm. My dad always said that “this is good for your nerves” but I never really resonated with me until much later, once I learned about how the human central nervous system functions.
Following up on October’s article, I just wanted to keep wandering though the vagus nerve. After discussing how important the “tone” of your neve is and that we can increase it by engaging in breathing exercises by stimulating the parasympathetic system, I also wanted to cover some other methods of stimulation, cold exposure being one of them.
Research has shown that cold exposure has a way of increasing your parasympathetic “rest and digest” activity through the vagus nerve by activating certain neurons which help us relax. In order to do this, you don’t have to go run outside in the snow, even though it might be a good option with the winter season upon us.
You can start by taking cold showers (30-60 sec to begin with) and minimizing clothing in colder temperatures (just don’t get sick). Another way to stimulate the nerve would be to take ice-cold water baths, immersing your face or whole body up to 60 sec (more if you prefer). Once the cold exposure reaches the end of tolerance level, you should make sure you have a way to warm up again in either a warm room, blankets, near a fire, or have lots of cloths to layer on.
Cold exposure not your thing? You can try vagal tone stimulation by activating your vocal cords. The vagus nerve originates in the medulla of the brainstem (area that acts as a relay between the brain and the body as well as controls basic bodily functions and consciousness) and its connected to your vocal cords and muscles in your throat. Brushing your teeth in the morning? Gargle some water. Driving in the car and listening to the radio? Sing or hum along. By singing, humming, gargling, or even chanting, the vagal tone increases as does heart-rate variability.
So, if you are interested in some relaxation and de-stressing methods as well as easy ways to control breathing and improving the brain-body connection, start enjoying burst of cold, maybe sing a simple tune…and be on the lookout for part three of the wandering nerve.